Read, Debate: Engage.

Congo takes on Apple

June 14, 2024
topic:Human Rights
tags:#DRC, #mining, #human trafficking, #child labour, #supply chains, #Apple
located:Democratic Republic of the Congo, USA, Rwanda
by:Cyril Zenda
Lawyers representing the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) served a formal cease and desist notice on Tim Cook, the chief executive officer of Apple.

In the 22 April notice, lawyers accuse the US-based global tech giant of relying on digital minerals plundered from the troubled vast central African country. 

In the same letter, the lawyers demand that Cook provide detailed answers regarding his firm’s supply chain in the country, hinting that they were mulling legal options. The demand coincided with the release of a report entitled 'Blood Minerals – The Laundering of DRC’s 3T Minerals by Rwanda and Private Entities,' which was drafted by the lawyers.

The DRC is rich in tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold - precious minerals often referred to as 3T or 3TG - used in producing smartphones and other electronic devices.

Also known as 'digital minerals' for their use in high-end tech products, the demand for these resources is reportedly fueling violence in the region. Research groups estimate that between 70 and 120 armed groups operate in the DRC, primarily in the mineral-rich eastern region. Many of these groups engage in illegal mining activities to finance their operations. 

These minerals are then smuggled out of the country by armed groups that commit summary executions, conflict-related sexual violence, abductions of civilians and forced recruitment of children, among other acts of violence.

The US and France-based lawyers accused Apple of sourcing its critical minerals from a supply chain that include resources smuggled from the DRC into neighbouring Rwanda, where they are allegedly laundered and "integrated into the global supply chain."

Plunder Allegations

"Year after year Apple has sold technology made with minerals sourced from a region whose population is being devastated by grave human rights violations," the lawyers wrote.

A recent report by the UN Joint Human Rights Office documented 2,110 human rights violations and abuses across the DRC between 1 October, 2023 and 15 March, 2024, finding that 59 per cent of these cases were committed by armed groups. This ongoing violence has internally displaced more than seven million people and has resulted in the deaths of over six million people since it began in 1994.

The 2023 UN Secretary-General Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict concluded that DRC had the highest number of verified grave violations against children, followed by Israel and the State of Palestine, Somalia, Syria and Ukraine.

It confirmed 3,377 grave violations against children, including cases of abduction, sexual violence, killing and maiming, recruitment, detention, school and hospital attacks and the denial of access to humanitarian aid, among others. It further found that 1,545 children were recruited by armed groups as militants, spies, guards and for other uses.

According to the report, at least 284 of these children, mostly girls, suffered sexual abuse.

The lawyers stated that although Apple has previously asserted that it verifies the origins of the minerals used in its products, these claims do not seem to be supported by concrete, verifiable evidence.

"The world’s eyes are wide shut: Rwanda’s production of key 3T minerals is near zero, and yet big tech companies say their minerals are sourced in Rwanda," they said.

They pointed out that international observers have documented numerous schemes that underpin and enable an extensive money laundering enterprise through illegal trade in conflict minerals sourced from Congolese territory. 

"These observers have demonstrated the dependent nature of relationships between perpetrators of this looting and some of the biggest producers of consumer electronics, such as mobile telephones and computers, and companies in the automotive, aviation and renewable energy sectors."

Minerals-linked wars

The DRC's mineral-rich eastern region has been rocked by violence since the Great Lakes wars of the 1990s, with numerous armed groups fighting over national identity, ethnicity and resources.

The DRC, United Nations, some Western countries and several human rights groups accuse Rwanda of supporting some of these rebel groups, including the notorious March 23 Movement (M23), in a bid to control the region’s vast mineral resources, an allegation Kigali denies.

However, even in 2022, Global Witness concluded that 90 per cent of the 3TG minerals exported by Rwanda were smuggled from DRC.

Over the years, human rights researchers and lawyers have compiled evidence showing that the world's top five tech firms are relying on blood minerals. These minerals are tainted by unethical extraction practices, including plunder, rape, forced labour and child labour.

How did apple respond? 

By the end of May, Cook, Apple’s CEO, had reportedly not acknowledged receipt of the formal notice, nor responded to the questions raised about his company’s supply chain. DRC’s lawyers claimed to have new evidence from whistle-blowers supporting their claim that Apple could be sourcing raw materials from conflict areas in eastern Congo.

"The tech giant has remained silent and neither answered nor even acknowledged receipt of the questions," the lawyers said.

In the past, human rights activists have sued Apple and several other global tech firms - Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google); Dell; Microsoft; and Tesla -for "knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt."

But a US court refused to hold them accountable on the technicality that they did not have anything more than an "ordinary buyer-seller transaction" with suppliers in the DRC.

Move Applauded 

Analysts told FairPlanet that regardless of how this case unfolds, it is a landmark moment that subjects global tech firms to scrutiny. Human rights campaigners view this as a crucial step in addressing conflicts in resource-rich but poorly governed countries like the DRC.

Dr Annette Hübschle, chief research officer of the Global Risk Governance Programme in the Public Law department at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, told FairPlanet that the move by DRC is significant in that it, among other things, draws international attention to the ongoing issue of conflict minerals by highlighting the human rights abuses and environmental degradation associated with their extraction. 

"By taking on major corporations, the DRC government is sending a strong message that it will no longer tolerate the exploitation of its resources under illicit and unethical conditions," Dr Hübschle said. She believes that if successful, this case could set a legal precedent, encouraging other countries and regions affected by conflict minerals to pursue similar actions. 

"The move could prompt stronger enforcement of existing regulations and the creation of new policies aimed at preventing the trade in conflict minerals. This could lead to more robust mechanisms for tracking and certifying the origin of minerals, making it more difficult for illicitly obtained resources to enter the global market." 

By addressing the issue at its source, Dr Hübschle said, the DRC aims to improve the lives of those affected by conflict mineral extraction at the source. In 2017 DRC made a commitment to end child labour by 2025, but rights groups say the Kinshasa administration, which is not in full control of the country, needs to do more to achieve this goal.

"This includes combating child labour, reducing violent conflicts fuelled by the mineral trade and promoting safer and more ethical mining practices. This case might also lead to more ethical sourcing. It could encourage more businesses to adopt and adhere to rigorous due diligence practices, fostering a market environment where ethical considerations are prioritised."

Dr Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), a civil society organisation based in Uganda, one of the countries through which DRC minerals are smuggled, told FairPlanet that the move by the Kinshasa government of President Félix Tshisekedi was a "noble one."

"The move by DRC to take legal measures against plunder of its mineral resources could have an enormous impact on this illegal trade and the economy of the DRC," Sewanyana said.

"DRC is rich in minerals yet its population is caught up in abject poverty, conflict and [is] one of the biggest producers of refugees in the region."

He stated that companies involved in the illicit mining of DRC’s resources should be held accountable.

"If DRC was able to trade in its mineral resources competitively, it would greatly improve its infrastructure, boost its economy, reduce conflicts, stem refugee flows and improve its human rights situation." 

Lloyd Kuveya, assistant director at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, also applauded Kinshasa for demanding accountability. 

"The significance of this case is that DRC is taking action to hold Apple accountable for human rights violations common in the extractive sector," Kuveya told FairPlanet.

"Some countries in the Global North are fuelling conflicts to extract critical minerals at low cost for the maximisation of profit at the expense of the ordinary people. Multinational corporations must not violate human rights and the environment as they pursue profit."

He said his centre will conduct training for DRC lawyers in July to equip them to hold corporations accountable for human rights violations, especially in the extraction of critical minerals.

"We will do it in (neighbouring) Zambia tentatively in the second week of July," Kuveya said. "We have facilitators who will conduct the training at the three-day workshop."

Dr Chairman Okoloise, a Business and Human Rights Specialist, told FairPlanet that while a lawsuit against Apple is a real possibility, the DRC government's move might also be aimed at pressuring major US tech firms to comply with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

"Pressuring companies like Apple that rely on critical materials such as Cobalt and Lithium and rare earth minerals such as 3TG emanating from the DRC will ensure that they implement human rights due diligence standards and responsible sourcing principles in minerals sourcing from the DRC and other high conflict zones," said Okoloise.

He highlighted that despite Apple’s Human Rights Policy and Supplier Code of Conduct, there are indications that the company continues to use minerals from high-conflict areas like the DRC. Okoloise noted that Apple's batteries use a significant portion of cobalt, much of which comes from the DRC. 

"Although the company has rapidly devoted itself to using 100 per cent renewable cobalt in its battery manufacturing since 2023, its commitment to conflict-free minerals from high-conflict zones like the DRC in Africa has remain ambiguous."

Okoloise suggested that the DRC government's actions could be aimed at stirring public debate or engaging regulatory oversight to scrutinize Apple's supply chains. Additionally, he proposed that Kinshasa might be attempting to negotiate with Apple to invest directly in the DRC, rather than through rogue supply chains that fuel conflict.

"This could be a strategic move by the government to get Apple to source its minerals through DRC government-approved channels. If this is the case and the government’s move proves successful, it could see greater revenue enter into the coffers of the government from the extraction of critical and rare earth minerals," Okoloise said.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest stories on supply chains, sustainable development and labour rights!

Image by Wesson Wang.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Democratic Republic of the Congo USA Rwanda
Embed from Getty Images
The DRC is rich in tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold - precious minerals often referred to as 3T or 3TG - used in producing smartphones and other electronic devices.
Embed from Getty Images
US and France-based lawyers accuse Apple of sourcing its critical minerals from a supply chain that includes resources smuggled from the DRC into neighbouring Rwanda, where they are allegedly laundered and "integrated into the global supply chain."
Embed from Getty Images
By the end of May, Cook, Apple’s CEO, had reportedly not acknowledged receipt of the formal notice, nor responded to the questions raised about his company’s supply chain.